Most of us have heard of TAFE — Technical and Further Education. The TAFE sector is the largest education and training sector in Australia. Each year, thousands of students enrol in a range of courses and subjects that provide them with practical and vocational skills for a variety of careers.
There are a number of TAFE institutes throughout Australia, each of them owned, operated and financed by the various state and territory governments. Unlike universities, which are autonomous institutions, most TAFE systems originated and developed as parts of government departments.
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The early years
The colonisation of Australia meant that initially, there was a shortage of skilled labour. In Britain, the main form of developing skilled labour was the apprenticeship system, so it made sense that Australia adopted a similar system, despite the establishment of industrial schools throughout Europe.
Throughout the 19th century, the apprenticeship system developed very quickly and a number of apprenticeship laws were passed in NSW (1828 & 1844) and Tasmania (1844).
The first form of adult technical education in Australia were the mechanics institutes and schools of arts, with the first Mechanics Institute being established in Hobart in 1827 and the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts being established in 1833. More institutions like these opened around the country and became the first providers of technical education in Australia.
As Australia’s population and economy continued to grow, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, there was increased demand for growth and diversification of secondary industries and services. However, due to the different effects this growth had in each state, the educational needs surrounding technical education were different from state to state.
Two World Wars and the Great Depression
During the early 1900s, numerous reports were made on technical education in Australia. A major catalyst for these was the International Conference of Technical Education, held in London in 1897. This conference led to the belief that the European technical training system was superior to the British and Australian systems, and so a period of upheaval began, including the development of technical high schools in Victoria, the introduction of Women’s Industries at the Sydney Technical College, and the development of correspondence courses.
By 1918, most States had reviewed their education systems, and the second major era of development of technical education was completed. These structures were to remain virtually unchanged until the 1970s.
Technical education tended to prosper during times of national crises such as world wars and economic depression when there were more funds provided for buildings and student places. While technical education suffered in the early years of the Depression, by the middle of the 1930s there was pressure to expand technical education to alleviate the problem of high unemployment.
The advent of World War II saw the creation of two main manpower training schemes — the Technical Training Scheme (TTS) and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS).
The TTS was introduced in 1941 to train workers in skills needed for the war effort, while the CRTS was set up in 1944 to provide full-time or part-time training in skilled trades or in secondary or post-secondary courses, in order for ex-servicemen and women to improve their civilian job opportunities. Both these initiatives involved extra funding towards universities and technical colleges.
The technical education sector continued to growth throughout the 1950s and 1960s to meet the changing occupational needs of a post-War workforce.
The change to TAFE
Until the 1970s, funding for technical schools was the responsibility of the states, with the Commonwealth Government granting funds during periods of rapid growth. However, throughout the 1960s the Commonwealth had become more involved in funding schools and education, and pressure was on for the government to fund technical education as well.
The report of the Australian Committee on Technical and Further Education, TAFE in Australia (ACOTAFE 1974), the subsequent establishment of the Technical and Further Education Commission (TAFEC) and the provision of Commonwealth funding in the 1970s had a dramatic effect on technical education in all States.
Technical education under its new name of TAFE, became nationally recognised as a distinct identity within the education sector. Both the quality and quantity of TAFE courses were raised, and the Commonwealth had input into TAFE policy and practice — all of which positively impacted the development and growth TAFE.
TAFE in the 21st century
Today, the TAFE sector offers a wide range of study options to suit all students, including students from overseas. It combines industry-relevant practical skills with industry-relevant theory, meaning that students gain excellent experience and knowledge within their chosen field.
Students studying through TAFE have the option to study full- or part-time, online, on campus or through the workplace. Different qualifications available include Certificate I-IV, Diploma, Advanced Diploma, and Vocational graduate certificate/diploma.
While TAFE institutes are traditionally known for their focus on vocational education, in recent years many have also started offering higher education programs such as bachelor degrees.
In years gone by, TAFE may have been considered the ‘cinderella’ of education, but today, TAFE provides practical, student-focused teaching strategies, ensuring highly competent, industry-ready graduates are ready to enter the workforce.